Going into Josiah Gray’s 27th start of the season, on September 3rd, Washington Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez talked about what he and his coaches would be watching as their 25-year-old righty tried to turn things around after a rough stretch, pound the zone, and get ahead of opposing hitters.
“Strikes,” Martinez said when asked what he was hoping to see. “Compete, throw some strikes, early strikes, get ahead early, fastball command. That stuff. The biggest thing is direction for him. Get his head towards his target, but pounding the strike zone. Then he does that and keeps the ball down, he’s been good. So we want to get him back to that today.”
Gray struggled out of the gate, however, giving up a home run to right by Luis Arraez on the fifth pitch he threw, a line drive single by Josh Bell, a ground-rule double by Jazz Chisholm, Jr. one out later, (on a ball rookie outfielder Jacob Young lost in the sun in left-center), then three straight walks which forced in two more runs, and he finished the opening frame at 32 pitches, down 3-0.
Josiah Gray's 3Ks thru 2. pic.twitter.com/kPXzgrL65M— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 14, 2023
Gray settled in, (after a regrettable, emotional reaction to the missed fly by his teammate at the end of the first), retiring the side in order in a 12-pitch second, and working around a hit in the third, and a walk in the fourth, but he was up to 86 pitches at that point and Martinez went to the bullpen in the fifth.
The loss in the outing left Gray winless in seven starts, over which he’d put up a 6.75 ERA, a 6.26 FIP, and a .236/.391/.400 line against in 29 1⁄3 IP.
Gray got up to 148 2⁄3 IP in his first full run in the majors in 2022, and his Sept. 3rd start left him at 141 2⁄3 IP this season. Martinez decided to give him extra rest going into yesterday’s series finale with the Pirates in PNC Park.
“He’s been struggling a little bit of late, I just want to give him a little break,” Martinez explained, noting that with his All-Star appearance, Gray has not had a real break this season.
Martinez said he didn’t want to shut Gray down, so an extended rest was the best option.
Eleven days later, Gray took the mound in Pittsburgh with a tweaked delivery (starting out like he was pitching out of the stretch, before going into a modified version of his windup), and proceeded to strike out a season-high 10 batters without walking anyone (for just the second time this season, and the first time since a mid-June outing against Houston). Gray gave up two runs on two hits, both home runs, but those were the only hits he allowed in the first five of his 6+ innings of work on the mound.
Gray didn’t actually pitch out of the stretch until he gave up a two-out single in the Pirates’ sixth, and he stranded the runner. In the bottom of the seventh, he gave up the fourth and fifth hits he allowed overall, and struck out the 10th batter on the day, before he was taken out of the game with Jordan Weems coming on with runners on second and third and one out and stranding the inherited runners.
“He attacked the strike zone,” Martinez said after what ended up a 2-0 loss in the finale in PNC Park. “His direction was way better today. Overall, he threw the ball really well.”
Josiah Gray, K'ing the Side in the 3rd.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 14, 2023
6Ks thru 3. pic.twitter.com/OTfp9nQpUp
The mechanical tweak was something the starter worked on during the extended break in-between appearances.
“It was something that we worked on,” Martinez explained.
“We’re trying to keep him gathered. Keep him under control. But he was really good today. It was good to see, so we could build off of that.”
“For me, it was just how can I — not sort of simplify things,” Gray told reporters in his own post game scrum, “but try and bring out some properties in my delivery that I know where I feel stable, I feel comfortable. So, was working in the bullpen with [Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey and all the guys there. I felt good with it and felt I could roll with it. So the early returns are good ... and just continue to build off of it.”
Asked what his focus was during his between-starts work, Gray had a two-word answer.
Martinez offered more of an explanation.
“It was more about getting direction,” he said of the thinking behind the mechanical tweak.
“Trying to figure out how to slow him down a little bit, and he worked on it, and today was really, really good.
“If we keep him there, was we all know, he’s an All-Star. We keep him there, it’s all about consistency now with him.”
“He was throwing a lot more strikes than the way he was before,” catcher Keibert Ruiz said of the tweaks and what had worked for Gray in the start, “getting ahead of the hitters early in the count, and he got really good results.”
“Early strikes, first-pitch strikes, finish them off with my whole array of pitches,” Gray said when he too asked what worked.
“But just getting ahead early worked a lot today and just believing in my stuff. Using the whole part of the plate. So it was a good day.”
Gray generated 13 swinging strikes, spread out over all of his pitches, and 17 called strikes, seven with his sinker, leaning on the pitch (38%) more than he has in other starts this year (14.7% AVG on the season).
“He primarily throws sinkers,” Martinez said. “The four-seams he tries to throw on occasion to get the ball up, but now it’s just more sinker/cutter, and he threw a couple changeups in there today too, which was kind of nice. But for the most part he kept the ball down. And when he’s good the ball is down and when he’s really good he can throw strikes down and that’s what happened today.”
Which stood out more for the manager: The season-high 10 Ks or the fact Gray didn’t walk any batters?
“The no walks,” Martinez said. “The no walks. Like I’ve said before, strikeouts are sexy. That’s great. But to be able to do what he did 10 strikeouts and no walks is beautiful.”
How about his catcher? The 10 Ks or the no walks? “Both,” Ruiz said.